Page 24

 Kendall Ryan

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“Nonsense,” she huffs. “Best job I ever had. Fifty-five grand a year, I decide my own schedule, and I get to see the country. You think waiting tables again would be easier on my knees? And my hands and shoulders are too shot to go back to factory jobs.”
“But you don’t need to work so hard anymore. You can stick to local deliveries. I’m done with school, and I’m making my own loan payments and living off my own savings. In a few years, I’ll start earning enough that you can retire.”
“I’m not here to talk about me, sweet pea. Or about money. I want to hear what’s new with you.” She cocks her head with a sly smile. “And who’s your friend?”
“I’m Hayden,” he says, standing up awkwardly in the booth and extending his hand. “Nice to meet you, Mrs. Winters.”
Mom shakes his hand and he blinks; another thing he clearly didn’t expect is her patented death grip. “Call me Val. You work at Emery’s firm?”
For the next twenty minutes, Mom peppers Hayden with questions about how we met, what he does for a living, where he went to school. He answers everything with as much grace as an interrogated prisoner can muster.
I give up even trying to steer the conversation. Mom has always thrown herself full force into everything—she’s known for her fierce affection, fierce anger, fierce joy—and it’s impossible to stop her once she’s made a decision.
Eventually Hayden finishes his coffee, leaves a fifty-dollar bill on the table to cover all three of our checks, and gets the hell out of there before I can protest his generosity. As soon as the door clangs shut behind him, Mom fixes me with a keen stare over her wire frames. “Don’t fall in love with that boy.”
I splutter out my mouthful of iced tea. “W-what?”
“You heard me,” Mom says calmly. “I’m crazy, not stupid. I see the way you look at him. I understand . . . he’s handsome as all get-out, and he seems pretty smart too. But he isn’t the type to settle down. Don’t put stock into what’ll never be.”
A strange heaviness settles in the pit of my stomach. When I came here, I thought that Mom’s advice would quiet my restless thoughts and give me direction. Then why don’t I feel any better? Actually, I might even feel worse. I busy myself wiping up my spilled tea, chewing the inside of my lip.
“I know what he’s like, Mom,” I finally say. “Don’t worry . . . we’re just friends.”
She nods a few times. “Good girl. I didn’t raise no fool.”
“No, Mom. You sure didn’t,” I say to reassure her, wondering if I’m lying.
Chapter Eleven
“What the hell are these?” Dottie’s shrill voice calls as she comes out of my bedroom with a purple G-string dangling from her little finger.
I shrug. “No idea.”
Her face twists in disgust. “They were under your bed. What do you mean you have no idea?”
Her tone is accusatory, but I really have no clue. I haven’t had a woman here in weeks, and just with that thought alone, my cock aches in a silent plea for relief. I realize I haven’t gotten any since Emery moved in. That strikes me as odd, and I have no explanation for it. Realizing that Dottie is still talking to me, I blink away the thoughts.
She gives me a reproving look. “Nice girls don’t wear the kind of panties I find in your bed. Crotchless G-strings are for strippers and bad girls. I want you to settle down with a good girl, Hayden,” she says, tossing the panties into the garbage like they’re diseased.
“I know you do, Dottie, and I appreciate that.”
Dottie comes three times a week to clean up, do laundry, cook, pick up my dry cleaning, and run errands. She’s sixty, but with more energy than the Energizer Bunny. She keeps my life running smoothly. I don’t want to do anything to piss her off, so I usually nod and smile at whatever piece of wisdom she’s offering up. But today, I’m stuck trying to figure out who those undies can possibly belong to.
I cross the room to where Dottie is wiping down the countertop. “I’ve got to run. Don’t stay too late.” I press a kiss to her cheek. She’s like a second mother to me, and even if I do write her paycheck, her concern and care for me always feel genuine.
She shoos me away. “I’ll stay until I’m happy that everything’s done. Have fun.”
I nod, grabbing my keys. I’m meeting Hudson for some beers. It’s been too long since we’ve hung out just as friends, without the worry of work hanging between us.
I head to The Avenue, a bar that’s become a regular meet-up spot for us. It’s on the edge of downtown about halfway between where he and I live, and it has an upscale feel without being swanky. The drinks are always cold, and the food is good too. When I pull into the parking lot, I spot his luxury SUV right away. Strolling inside, I find the coolness of the air-conditioning is welcome against my skin.
He’s sitting at the bar with a bottle of beer already in his hand and another waiting for me in front of the stool next to him. God bless America.
“Hey, buddy, how’ve you been?” I say, sliding onto the bar stool next to him.
He raises his bottle and clinks it to mine. “Life’s been pretty damn good lately. I haven’t had any angry tenants to deal with.”
I smirk at him. “I’m following through. You didn’t doubt me, did you?”
His eyebrows jump up. “Fuck yeah, I did. Especially when you started hanging out with the hot-as-fuck new girl.”